That would be the Mini Cooper S, still a head-turner though it has been in production for two years. Kids love this car. Virtually every grocery bagger and fast-food worker we encountered during our week with the Mini gave it a thumbs up. Problem is, few of them can afford one. The suggested retail for the S version we drove is $20,449. That price includes a manual Getrag six-speed transmission and no options whatsoever, though the S carries a more powerful supercharged engine than the ordinary Mini. The list on a basic Mini is about $16,500, still out of reach for many younger car buyers.
The Mini is shorter overall than any other car in the U.S., measuring just 142.8 in. One way the small size manifests itself is in the passenger compartment. Front-seat occupants have a decent amount of headroom and comfort, but the back is another story. With the front seat adjusted for my 5-ft, 8-in. frame, we measured just 5.25 in. of leg room for anyone sitting behind me.
Anyone seated behind my slightly taller front-seat passenger would have gotten 3 in. of leg space. Our conclusion: Storage space constitutes a better use for the back-seat area. The tailgate lifts up to provide enough room for about five bags of groceries. With the divider down, storage space expands to 23.7 ft3.
Drivers with big feet might also have troubles. With my business-casual shoe on the accelerator, there was just 3/8 in. of space from the left edge of my shoe to the brake pedal. That meant I'd occasionally touch the brake if I hit the gas without keeping my right foot firmly against the transmission housing. (This was less of a problem when I switched to sneakers.)
Aside from its dimensions, the passenger compartment was nicely appointed. Our review vehicle carried gray and black cloth seats. Leather is available for more money. The console is black with silver-plastic gages and knobs. Controls for such features as power windows and door locks reside in odd places but are okay once you get used to them.
The best thing about the Mini's ride is its cornering. It tracked well on sharp turns and zipped around corners and curves. It steers as though it is a much larger car. We expected something like the dartiness of a go-kart from such a diminutive vehicle, but there was none of this. Braking, too, is superlative. The Mini carries disc brakes all around that stop it authoritatively. They couple with traction control, ABS, corner braking control, and electronic brakeforce-distribution systems.
But the Mini leaves something to be desired when it traverses railroad tracks and potholes. The ride over such obstacles is rough.
The supercharged four-cylinder powerplant in the S model delivers 163 hp compared to 115 hp for the ordinary Mini. The supercharged 1.6-liter engine gives the S plenty of zip. It hits 60 mph in about 7 sec and covers a quarter mile in about 15.5. A tall sixth gear promotes fuel economy despite the extra horsepower. The car is rated at 25/34 mpg. Another plus is that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Mini a good overall rating in 40-mph frontal offset crash tests.
No denying the Mini has an appealing look. Its 16-in. white alloy spoke wheels, round headlights, and styling cues set it apart from other cars on the road. Topping off the exterior is a highquality fit-and-finish. Gaps are all small and the car's lids and doors all feel tight. That said, the Mini may not be the best choice for NBA players or 300-lb NFL linemen. Lee Teschler